Roadblocks, nasty twisted ankle and grumpiness accompanied me back to Santa Cruz de la Sierra from Samaipata. I missed out on the El Fuerte, a very important archaeological site and it definitely added to my woes. Santa Cruz de la Sierra was dull and cloudy and after a few days became very boring. So one fine afternoon after another self indulgent lunch at Tia Lia, I hobbled down to a travel agent, bought a flight ticket for Sucre and got going. The morning flight was via Cochabamba and took around 4.5 hours. It was a small prop plane, operated by Boliviana de Aviación (BOA) and flew over the beautiful Bolivian landscape. My heart sang as we lifted out of Santa Cruz and rumbled for a break at Cochabamba. The flight got delayed at Cochabamba due to a bizarre transit process where all the passengers went through a rerun of the entire check-in to boarding procedure. It was supposedly in compliance to drug control measures as Cochabamba is a huge narcotic hub.
TRAVEL TIP – Catch up on the book Marching Powder, written by Rusty Young, published in 2003. It describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden who was known for offering San Pedro (infamous jail in La Paz) prison tours to tourists. San Pedro prison or El penal de San Pedro is the largest prison in La Paz, Bolivia. It is renowned for being a complex in itself and has an incredibly self sustaining prison society.
Significantly different from most correctional facilities, inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the community, buy or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The sale of cocaine base (coca is cultivated illegally in shoe boxes within the premises) to visiting tourists gives the inmates a significant income and an unusual amount of freedom within the prison walls. Elected leaders chosen among the inmates by the inmates to enforce the laws of the community, where stabbings are common. The prison is home to approximately 1,500 inmates (not including the women and children who live inside the walls with their convicted husbands), with additional guests staying in the prison hotel and is home to a thriving drug business. Needless to say, most inmates are convicted for drug crimes.
The flight was uneventful after that and the landscape became spectacular. Moonscape mountains of different colors rolled under strange cloud formations and winding river cut deep gorges. We landed with a heart stopping bump at Sucre and immediately the altitude sickness got me.
TRAVEL TIP – Sucre also known historically as Charcas, La Plata and Chuquisaca is the constitutional capital of Bolivia. It lies in the department (state) of Chuquisaca, located in the south-central part of the country. Sucre lies at an elevation of 2810 m and remains cool throughout the year. However a lot of travelers and visitors feel unwell due to altitude sickness upon arrival and this should not go untreated. While the prescribed Soroche pills are usually not required in Sucre, lots of rest, eating light and staying hydrated helps. Alternatively coca teas which are readily available everywhere are known for giving relief from this condition.
I stumbled out in the cold thin air breathless, dizzy and feeling very light headed. Before the sickness took a turn for worse, I hailed a taxi quickly, checked into my hotel and slept till noon. Cups of coca tea (mate de coca) helped and by evening I started feeling better. My Hostal Sucre was a beautiful white colonial casa with a sunny rose filled courtyard, decorative urns, iron benches and fountains. I would have been more than happy to have just lingered there by the roses and tinkling water, but the legendary beauty of Sucre drew me out. I left my casa to walk around the official capital city of Bolivia. A beautiful snow white UNESCO heritage city, it has lots of gems in colonial architecture, winding narrow streets, ornamental street lamps and beautiful purple and gold sunsets.
Sucre rose to prominence as an attractive retreat for wealthy and influential figures connected with nearby Potosí’s silver mines. Although Sucre is considered a ‘colonial’ city, its architecture is more of later, neo-classical style when new money from mines poured in. While the crooked streets of Potosí in reality reflect the chaotic urban planning of early colonialism and attempt to accommodate the silver rush, well kept elegant Sucre displays the result of the wealth which later got spawned by the silver trade. Sucre’s original name is incidentally Ciudad de la Plata de la Nueva Toledo (city of the silver of New Toledo).
Plaza 25 de Mayo lies in the center of Sucre and is circled by the Cathedral, the office of the Prefectura (regional government), the Alcaldía (city government) and the historic Casa de la Libertad. Strings of overpriced and over-rated restaurants and bars also jostle for space with these graceful monuments and I had made quite a few expensive mistakes there. A lion-flanked statue of Mariscal Jose Antonio Sucre, Simon Bolivar’s right hand man and the first president of Bolivia stands tall right in the middle of the plaza and scatters silvery sun rays across his beloved city every morning.
The plaza although not as lively as the one in Santa Cruz, was a very pleasant place. Church bells tolled at regular intervals and evenings drew families together. They chatted, gossiped, tourist watched and fed the pigeons. Sucre is a more conservative than Santa Cruz de la Sierra and it showed very distinctly in its residents demeanour. The plaza used to as usual plastered with lovers and while they snuggled and kissed, their public display of affection was more restrained than their Santa Cruz counterparts. Sucre’s sky was also as gorgeous as the city and dusk always settled in slowly there. Sunsets were always brilliant, often intense enough to shade the white monuments faintly and it became very cold at nights. As much as I loved walking around the graceful city, its food scene badly let me down and my every walk used to end up with meal worries. Restaurants around the plaza promised bad food, poor service and expensive rates and every day after my bad lunches there, I used to stroll back to my casa disappointed and a bit hungry. The city’s street food scene and cheap mercado stalls came alive in the evenings and the vendors around the neighbouring Calle (Street) Argentine used to find me every evening tucking in their enormous cheesy pizzas and freshly fried chicken. Although neither tasty nor healthy, they were at least cheaper than over priced bad restaurant food and consisted of my dinner every night.
TRAVEL TIP – Food vendors throng around Calle Argentina and buying dinner from them reduces food cost by nearly 90% (from plaza restaurant rates). They sell fresh pizzas baked in small portable ovens and sizzling fried chicken. Sandwiches, pastries and fruit juices are also available there along with the usual coca tea and coffee. There are lots of tour agencies in Sucre and buying Salar excursions from them means paying an extra fee of 300 Bolivianos, than the usual price. It makes more sense to go to Potosi by bus for an overnight stop before proceeding to Uyuni from there or bus it to Uyuni directly.
My Sucre days were pleasantly uneventful and lonely. In spite of having cheapest Spanish lessons prices and a huge number of long term tourists, it was a very quiet city. Saturday nights did not bring out booming music from speeding cars and drunken feminine holas did not fill the city night. For lack of anything better every night, I used to visit the Irish pub to listen to some Bolivian live music, treat myself to huge sparkling Mojitos and retire to bed early. This went on for some days and I even considered taking Spanish lessons there when, on one Sunday I happened to visit the famous Tarabuco market. Strangely Tarabuco completely made me Sucre sated and although intensely touristy, became the highlight of my capital city visit.
A lively Sunday artisan market hosted by indigenous Yampura people in the town of Tarabuco, it is located approximately 65 km southeast of Sucre. A popular tourist attraction for visitors to Sucre for buying locally crafted tapestries, bags, hats, sweaters and shawls, every Sunday morning the plaza gets crowded with rows of shared public van which take 30 Bolivianos and 2 hours to reach Tarabuco.
Although the day started early, it was a beautiful drive through the mountainous rural Bolivia and the countryside looked glorious in the soft morning light. The market was indeed very photogenic and sadly also a major tourist trap. Yampura people strutted around in their indigenous costumes and shopped, dined, wandered and gossiped. They were an an amazingly colorful collection of rural indigenous Bolivians in bright shawls, frilly skirts, hats, twin braids and mouthful of coca. Tarabuco Sunday market was their weekly highlight and they traveled for miles to come to town to buy necessary household items and gossip. Their love for hats is legendary and the head gear shops draw maximum crowd.
It was an outstanding by all means and a section of the market did not even deal in cash, but still used only barter system. There were fruits, vegetables, woolens, leather goods, head gears, handicrafts and a fresh meat zone apart from cheap food stalls where broths bubbled in huge cauldrons. For me it was an alien explosion of sights, sounds, feelings and emotions and I wandered around the incredible movie set like market staring at the leathery shoemakers, harsh faced old Yampura vegetable sellers and bright eyed babies playing with a headless Barbies.
By mid-afternoon the market emptied considerably and the local vendors started to close-up their shops. There were 2 major restaurants in Tarabuco and their owners hustled aggressively for customers. I wandered to the central square, got lead by 1 and lunched at a lovely garden restaurant. Average food was passed off as organic and the much acclaimed folk dance performances were lame at best. But it felt very pleasant to sit under a huge Yampura sky and soak in the rural pleasures amidst roses, stone urns and friendly indigenous stares .
Post lunch, the sky suddenly grew dark and I unwillingly boarded the last public bus back to Sucre. Although I had plans to explore the countryside a bit, big fat rain drops got me scuttling back on board where I slept throughout the way. Dinner happened at the terrible Chifa New Hong Kong restaurant and it was the worst attempt at Chinese food I had ever tasted (as expected in South America).
After that Tarabuco sunday, I found it difficult to hang around in Sucre. Although an incredibly pretty city, I had enough of its snow white beauty and longed to move on. Potosi with its rugged history enticed me but my Bolivian time was running out fast. I still had Salar Uyuni to experience apart from the Amazonian lushness of Madidi National Park, Sajama and iconic Death Road. Immediately I gave Potosi a miss, booked a seat on a morning bus to Uyuni (my only sensible Sucre decision) and looked forward to my Salt Flat adventure. Salar de Uyuni was the main reason behind my atrociously long flight to other part of the world and I badly wanted to experience my most cherished (travel) dream coming true.
TRAVEL TIP – Sucre is a popular tourist town and a renowned place to learn Spanish and volunteer. Spanish lessons are cheapest there and many interesting Spanish walks are also hosted to help grasp usable bits of the language for travelers.
Sucre is also famous for its tapestries, which are sold at Tarabucco market and shops all around the town. All the different tribes that surround Sucre have their own unique style and it is shown in their work by using different colours or symbols. Their prices depend on size and complexity (some tapestries take up to a year for one person to make) and travelers can help support this tradition by purchasing the tapestries from either the overpriced Tarabucco market, or at a cheaper price from the numerous shops in Sucre. Locally knitted sweaters, scarves and related items, especially those made from alpaca wool are also sold here and are pretty good bargains.
Sucre is famous for its chocolates and Chocolates Para Ti and Chocolates Taboada are most popular. Tarabuco is undoubtedly a Sucre itinerary highlight and market tours are offered by every Sucre agency. However it is easily a DIY trip and taking the 8 am public bus is the best way to go about it. These buses leave from the main plaza and tickets can be bought on the spot directly from the drivers
For a far less touristy experience try Candelaria. This village is further away from Sucre than Tarabuco, but is a part of the same culture that is renowned nation-wide for its handicrafts. Prices are also better than at Tarabuco but since transportation is very limited and it’s best to go there with the help of a tour agency.
One of the most popular destinations outside of Sucre is Maragua crater. It is a region of unusual rock formations and the crater is not volcanic (contrary to its name), but was formed due to erosion. Fossils of marine shells are still found in the region and sold by local children. It is possible to spend a night in the village inside the crater. Although the conditions are basic but the experience of living in a village inside the crater is quite unique.
Quecha is the locally spoken language here and hiring a guide for long treks is advisable. This area is filled with indigenous communities and even a Spanish speaker find it hard to get around on their own. Respecting and being sensitive to the indigenous culture is very important to experience their true lifestyle and being accepted. Sucre is also a good jumping off base for bus trips to nearly every part of the country.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE